Welcome to the Cyclades
It is not at all surprising that those who have visited the Cyclades islands consider the Cyclades to be Greece and other Greek island chains to be small aberrations to the national character. The Greek islands of the Cyclades are the main islands that advertise the whole country of Greece in all kinds of travel agencies, magazines, websites and travel brochures. Every cliche, every memory, every dream of a sun-drenched clean white sanded beach can be discovered on these islands. The white and blue square houses are justifiably famous, inspiring the work of many international, modern architects, the architect Le Corbusier among the many. Most all of the beaches are crystal clean and very pleasant, the local food is fresh, the ferry connections are reliable and organized making it easy to sail to more than one Greek “paradise” while on a relatively short vacation.
There is a total of 56 Greek islands in the complex known as the Cyclades islands, 24 out of the 56 islands are inhabited, while the remaining 32 are mostly islets and rocks, some of these, however, have an important archaeological value. The spiritual center of the Cyclades islands could be considered to be the island of Santorini, for although Santorini is located to the south geographically, it is to this picturesque, beautiful, volcanic island that most people visit first, before the other islands.
The Greek islands that form the shape of a fan on the eastern side of the island of Santorini which include the popular islands of Naxos, Paros and Mykonos used to be popular for back-packers and island hoppers, whereas quieter islands located on the eastern side of Santorini include the small, almost virgin islands of Donoussa and Iraklia, the beautiful island that is located last in the line to the east is the island of Andros.
The Cyclades islands located on the western side of Santorini, create another chain, a line of beautiful islands, each self-contained in its own unity, however, they share the same culture that is linked by their history and the ferry connections. The western Cyclades islands are the islands of Serifos, Sifnos, Milos, Kythnos, and Kea, then the two islands of shame, Makronissos island and Giaros island which are not touristic islands and are considered to be the islands of shame for the Greeks.
The islands of the Cyclades are said to have been inhabited since the early years of 6000 B.C. During the third millennium until the end of the fourth millennium, an advanced civilization was noted with many paths of art and crafts and commerce. People began to live a higher standard of life and enjoyed it as is displayed today at the address: Neofytou Douka Street which houses the Goulandris Museum of Athens. This museum is the first museum in the world that is exclusively devoted to the art of the Cyclades islands (Cycladic art), displayed by the museum’s long, linear, bright-white sculptures made from the shiny white Cycladic marble.
Each island has its own unique history which you can read about on the island pages. Some islands such as the party island of Mykonos, may not display their history that much, but it can always be discovered easily.
The inhabited Cyclades islands are the following:
The Northern Cyclades: Kea, Kythnos, Syros, Andros, Tinos, Mykonos, Makronissos, Giaros, Delos, and Rhenia.
The Middle Cyclades: Serifos, Sifnos, Antiparos, Paros, Naxos,
The Small Cyclades: Donoussa, Iraklia, Schinousa, Koufonissia, and Amorgos.
The Southern Cyclades: Milos, Kimolos, Folegandros, Sikinos, Ios, Thira (Santorini) and Anafi.
The Greek Cyclades islands are a complex of small, beautiful islands, located in the Aegean Sea. The islands form a circle around the holy, sacred island of Delos. The Cyclades islands are often mentioned as the pearls of all the many Greek islands and international visitors travel very long distances, just to feel the peace and calm atmosphere and the idyllic landscapes of the islands. We can assure you that after your first visit to the Greek Cyclades islands, you will be back!
When you travel to some of the islands of the Cyclades group, you are sure to notice many traditional windmills (some windmills still operate, while many others are just ruins that decorate the islands), uncountable little chapels, many water mills, and many large, rich Greek Orthodox churches. There are many ruined farmhouses that always manage to catch the eye of the visitors as well as the architectural decoration of the many dovecotes on the islands of Andros, Paros, and Tinos.
Some of the exclusive characteristics of the architecture of the Cyclades islands (Cycladic architecture) are the low white buildings, it is rare to find a high 3-floor building the islands of the Cyclades because each island maintains the architectural rules of the whole Cyclades group. The traditional architectural rules of the Cyclades states that the houses, stores, and buildings should be painted white and most wooden doors and windows should be a dark shade of blue, the same color of the ocean. This specific, traditional shade of dark blue has also been used to paint the domes of the uncountable churches, you will very rarely see a church in the Cyclades islands that is not white and blue. The beautiful traditional churches have been built in all areas throughout the islands of the Cyclades, making the islands even more beautiful and very traditional.
The initial reason that the houses, stores, and buildings were painted white was to reflect the hot, harsh summer sun. This means that in reality, this tradition was started off for “bioclimatic” or “ecological” purposes and resulting in making the houses a little bit more heat resistant, with the little architectural knowledge that the people had at the time. All of the old houses in the Cyclades islands were very well insulated, with primitive means – the walls were built with stone and dirt, sometimes as thick as 60 centimeters, this caused them to endure the hot and cold weather very well, while the roofs (whether vaulted or not) were also insulated, most times with a combination of wood, mud, hay, and pozolanic (volcanic ash) concrete. In the olden years, the white walls were not painted with today’s buckets of white paint, as the white paint was fabricated and produced all around the world in the years 1905 – 1915. Instead of white paint, traditional asbestos was used to produce a shiny white color. Asbestos was also used as a cheap material for many other paint jobs, such as painting the tree trunks to kill the insects and pests, for making the edges of few pavements more visible, for decorating small alleyways, etc. Santorini did not follow this tradition, however, this was the case in the other Cycladic islands. You might have noticed or wondered why the locals paint the lower tree barks also in white on most of the Cyclades Islands and generally in Greece, ! This is said to get rid of the many insects, but it is also because the color white is clean, so by painting the bottom of the tree barks white, the trees look clean!
Starting in the year 1974, all new houses in the Cyclades had to be painted white, either with asbestos or with paint. The owners of the buildings, houses, and stores are obligated by the municipality of each of the islands to paint the outsides of their houses at least once a year. The painting usually takes place in the springtime. Painting is still a common obligation, by the law, however, today, sometimes very light blue, pink, and some other light colors have been allowed but are not approved of by the locals as they spoil the Cycladic architecture traditions. Τhere was a big debate that re-opened a couple of years ago between the Ministry of Culture and other various municipal authorities about re-allowing other vivid colors for windows and doors, as in Santorini. This debate is still in progress, however, most of the islanders are proud of their tradition and they maintain the white and the blue colors.
Each and every island of the Cyclades complex maintains until today its own unique characteristics, which have been determined by the history of each island, the geology, and the topography, however, all islands are still bound together by their unique architecture. The Cycladic architecture is very famous all over Greece for its charm and uniqueness, it provides the islands with minimal aesthetics but with a beautiful, traditional style that captures the heart of each visitor.
The food and the cuisine of the islands of the Cyclades is primordial and reflects the deep history of culture. With the distinctive character, fresh spices, strong aromas, and fresh, organic fruit and vegetables that are ripened in the bright sun, it creates a separate chapter of the tradition of the Greek gastronomic and also of the culinary history of the whole world.
The popular ‘makarounes’ of the Aegean (hand-made, fresh pasta with caramelized tiny onions), the Kassian pilaf, ‘skardoumia’ (the offal soup) from Santorini, Serifos is popular for its ‘marathotiganites’ (fennel rissoles) and its ‘dolmathakia’ rice wrapped in fresh vine leaves with herbs. The ‘melitera’ (sweet cheese pies with a vanilla ascent) from the island of Anafi, and Sifnos’s ‘melopita’ (honey pie), are just a few of the hundreds of traditional Cyclades dishes that the visitors should try while in the warm embrace of the Aegean.
The beauty of the islands belonging to the Cyclades group is a popular tourist attraction, not only for the travelers but also for people who are involved creatively in the culinary arts, who come to the Cyclades islands to expand their knowledge and show their respect and love of the Greek traditional cuisine. The taverns and restaurants of the Cyclades islands have a prominent place in most international rankings and are also highly appreciated by the devotees of the haute cuisine and authentic eating experiences.
In most of the Cycladic islands, the houses, churches, and buildings were painted white, in order to reflect the harsh summer sun. So, this tradition started for “bioclimatic” or “ecological” reasons, to make the houses a little bit more heat resistant, with the little knowledge that the people had at the time. All Cycladic island houses were quite well insulated, although with primitive means — walls were built with stone (enduring heat and cold very well) while roofs (vaulted or not) were insulated too, with a combination of wood, mud, hay, and pozolanic (volcanic ash) cement. One thing to note is that walls were not painted with white paint, since the white paint was fabricated and mass-produced all around the world, only after 1905 – 1915. Instead, asbestos was used to produce an almost white color. It was also used as a cheap material for many other purposes, like painting tree trunks to kill pests, making the edges of pavements more visible, ornamenting small roads, etc. This was NOT the case in Santorini but in most other Cycladic islands.
You might notice and ask why on most of the Cyclades Islands and generally in Greece, the locals paint the lower tree barks also in white! This is said to get rid of the many insects, but it is also because the color white is clean, so by painting the tree barks white, they look clean!
The Cyclades, due to their central location to trade in the eastern Mediterranean, have a rich and long history. They are a part of the vast number of islands that constitute the Greek archipelago in the Aegean Sea. The name was originally used to indicate islands that formed a rough circle around the sacred island of Delos.
The Cyclades are comprised of around 220 islands, with the major ones being Amorgos, Anafi, Antiparos, Delos, Ios, Kimolos, Kynthos, Mílos, Mykonos, Náxos, Páros, Folegandros, Serifos, Sifnos, Sikinos, Syros, Tínos, and Santorini (Thíra).
While ancient maritime trade made the region important strategically and geographically, a reliable agricultural base made life on the Cyclades archipelago possible. The Cyclades may have been one of the earliest sites of the worship of the Mother Goddess cult, which became widespread throughout the eastern and western Mediterranean.
All Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures including ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and later on, Greece, would feature prominent goddesses. When the Minoan culture flourished in the islands from about 3000 to 1450 b.c.e., frescoes on the walls of the palace, excavated by the British archaeologist Arthur Evans, featured a bare-breasted goddess with snakes.
Snakes figured in many of the Mother Goddess cults in antiquity and had its parallel in the story of Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden in the Old Testament. Settlement of the Cyclades was sporadic. The Phoenicians were most likely the first settlers, while around 1000 b.c.e. the island was inhabited by the Ionians. In the case of Syros, ancient ruins, statuettes, and skeletons indicate the island had been settled by the Bronze Age.
The very dispersion of the islands made seafaring a necessary part of survival, as islanders learned that they could gain by trading with—or raiding—other islands in the archipelago.
It is in these early boats that one can find the beginnings of the oared galleys that would be a feature of Mediterranean warfare until the 18th century at least when the Knights of Malta used huge galleys in their wars against the Barbary pirates. Cycladic ships were the prototypes with which ancient Greece would plant its colonies, beginning around the sixth-century b.c.e., and with which Rome would become the mistress of the Mediterranean.
The Cycladic culture peaked during the Minoan period, which was brought to life by the work of Arthur Evans with his reconstruction of the royal palace at Knossos. The story of European civilization begins on the island of Crete with a civilization that probably thought of itself as Asian (in fact, Crete is closer to Asia than it is to Europe).
Thus, the Cyclades and Cretan Minoan civilization provided the first known fusion of Western and Asiatic culture. With the rise of Alexander the Great around 320 b.c.e., this would become the great Hellenistic civilization, which Alexander’s armies would carry to the very frontiers of India.
The deep ancestry of the Cyclades was remembered through myths and legends, and most of the islands feature in ancient Greek and Roman mythology. The reality behind the myths can be explored through important archaeological remains, particularly in Delos, Santorini, and Naxos. These date from the Bronze Age, Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic and Roman times, and they yield fascinating connections to the wider ancient world.
Each island has its own history and its own mythology, which is very interesting and if you study the sites on the islands, having a general knowledge of the mythology and history will help you tremendously.
Information about the Cyclades islands
- Architecture in the Cyclades
- Food and drink in the Cyclades
- Traditions in the Cyclades
- The history of the Cyclades islands
- The mythology of the Cyclades islands